McCormack Speaks

March 24, 2017
by McCormack Speaks
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Nobel Laureate Peter Diamond on Social Security

financial crisis chartNobel laureate Peter Diamond has a message for everyone worried about the future of Social Security. He knows exactly how you feel.

“This is a vital program and it’s really important that we preserve, in my mind, the basic structure,” Diamond said at a March 9 event hosted by the Pension Action Center at UMass Boston’s McCormack Graduate School.

But the problem is as serious as it is clear. The Social Security Trust Funds are projected to run out of money and there’s a 50 percent chance that will happen by the end of 2034. A depleted fund would mean a benefit cut of more than 20 percent and forecasts beyond that are pessimistic. Read more.

March 21, 2017
by McCormack Speaks
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The Beauty of a Brown Lawn

by Katie Ronan, McCormack Graduate School student

brown lawnAs the days get longer, daffodils begin to bloom, and heavy winter jackets are shed, the last thing on our minds may be the drought. However, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, this past summer and fall Massachusetts experienced severe and even extreme drought conditions which put a serious strain on public water supplies. Across the state, communities faced with dangerous water shortages were forced to implement outdoor water use bans and tap into emergency sources. Although rain, melting snow, and low winter water demand have helped to alleviate some urgency, this does not mean the drought is over. On February 1, the Massachusetts Secretary of Environmental Affairs declared that despite slight improvement, much of the state is still facing water deficits and all regions remain under drought advisory, watch, or warning.

This is because reservoirs and watersheds are like the battery in your smartphone-they drain much faster than they recharge. Although a few rain and snowstorms certainly help, they are really only equivalent to a few minutes on the charger. Just as this might give you enough battery life to text your friends before your phone dies, it will not suddenly reverse a drought. In reality, it can take years of rainy weather to completely refill reservoirs and replenish aquifers after a severe drought. Additionally, we never know how long dry spells will last or if the coming months will begin to improve, or worsen, our state’s drought conditions. With 70 degree days in February, climate change only seems to be increasing the variability and extremity of weather patterns.

This may sound scary, but it does not have to be. Despite the lack of control over how much water we get, we do have control over how much we use. A systems thinker might say that even with limited inflow, we can maintain the stock in our system by also limiting outflow. In other words, we can help maintain our water supplies when precipitation is limited simply by using less water! There are many easy and effective ways to conserve water in our everyday lives such as limiting outdoor water use, fixing leaky fixtures, taking shorter showers, and reusing clean household water. By opting not to deplete our common resource and to use water wisely, we can avoid the need for government implemented water bans and usage restrictions. Just because we are allowed to water our lawns does not mean we should.

In addition to adjusting our behavior, I propose adjusting our perspective. Although our green grassy lawns conjure feelings of idyllic New England, watering them accounts for a lot of wasted water. It is natural for grass to fade and go dormant during hot summer dry spells, but it recovers when the weather cools off. Let’s eliminate the shame of having a brown lawn and let the grass be greener on the other side. Better yet, let’s encourage our neighbors to limit outdoor watering and let their lawns go brown too!

Together we can shift our collective paradigm and make Massachusetts a leader in reducing the social pressure to keep our lawns perfectly green all year long. Maybe we can even expand our ideas of what a lawn should look like and begin to integrate xeriscaping or permaculture. By conserving water we can all help to bolster our state’s water supplies. By integrating conservation into the social fabric of our daily lives, we can ensure that Massachusetts has sufficient water to weather whatever the seasons bring. This summer, let’s all let our lawns go brown and save water for what really matters, like fire suppression, medical needs, and flushing the toilet!

Katie Ronan studies public administration at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

March 19, 2017
by McCormack Speaks
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To HAV or to Hold: How Soon Do We Embrace the Autonomous Car?

By Christopher Dunne, McCormack Graduate School student

car on roadThe watchword in Silicon Valley is “disruption” and few technologies seem better positioned to disrupt than highly autonomous vehicles (HAVs). If our nation’s fleet was to change from one driven by error-prone humans to next-to-infallible machines, the need for professional drivers, auto insurance, and even the privately-owned vehicles could evaporate seemingly overnight. The cost-savings, again both in lives and money, may prove too good to turn down but the devil will clearly be in the details. What is a wonk to do?

Nearly all technologies must at some point make the transition from yesterday’s treasure to today’s trash. The personal electronic graveyards lurking in the recesses of our homes attest to this fact.

Policymakers are all too aware of this phenomenon. Every time they devote public resources to technology they run the risk that their investment will soon be overtaken by newer and better ways of doing things. Elaborate paper filing systems, dusty out-of-date hard-drives, and hulking mainframes can come to seem like an unkind mirror reflection of the very bureaucracies that house them.

The stakes in taxpayer dollars can be high and these historical memories should still give politicians pause before green-lighting pricey and inflexible new projects, especially with change just around the corner.

Massachusetts has some significant advantages when it comes to the potential transition to autonomous vehicles. Some are obvious: Greater Boston is making a name for itself in biotech, healthcare, and other cutting-edge markets. However, some of our advantages are less intuitive.

One of the Hub’s most frustrating features is seen as a plus for companies willing to dip their toes into the burgeoning HAV market: our network of labyrinthine cow paths and rotaries caked in winter’s ice and snow that passes for a street system. The thinking goes that if you can design a vehicle that can handle Boston, it can drive anywhere. So, odd as it may seem, companies want to test drive their vehicles on our roads for precisely the reasons humans don’t want to go near them.

That’s all well and good but without a policy framework for companies to operate within, California, Michigan, and other hotspots for technology and automobiles may still look more attractive. Fortunately, the Commonwealth is blessed with forward-thinking leadership on the issue.

Last fall, Governor Charlie Baker signed an executive order putting in place a working group “to promote the testing and deployment of highly automated driving technologies.” The legislature has kept up the pace with Senate President Stanley Rosenberg highlighting the issue in his January inaugural address to the chamber while lawmakers of both houses have filed at least a half a dozen bills on self-driving cars.

Have we resolved when and how to make the transition to the new technology? No, and the bulk of that work is still ahead. But as is often the case, Massachusetts is poised to lead on this issue. Half the battle is knowing what’s coming down the pike.

Christopher Dunne is a student and McCormack Scholar at UMass Boston’s Master of Public Administration (MPA) program.  He currently works for State Senator Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield) as his legislative and budget director, managing the Senator’s state budget and policy agenda.

March 17, 2017
by McCormack Speaks
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The Future of Food Stamps

by Anonymous, a McCormack Graduate School student

groceriesWithin the United States there has been an increasing level of opposition regarding one of the most important government programs for those in need, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP benefits are managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and administered by state agencies. Within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the Department of Transitional Assistance provides this food assistance to low-income households. SNAP benefits are essential in bridging the gap for those with low income, part-time employees, the elderly, the disabled, and other households in need.

Twenty years ago, welfare reform passed, transforming the welfare entitlement program Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) into the grant program known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), TAFDC in Massachusetts. TANF gives states flexibility in the ways in which they allocate grant money and set the program eligibility standards. In fact, states can raise standards to decrease program eligibility and use funds for other approved programs.

Similarly, SNAP has become a target for reform, just as AFDC was leading up to welfare reform. However, unlike AFDC and TANF, SNAP benefits are specifically for food. It is SNAP’s status as an entitlement program that guarantees all of those who meet the federal qualifications will be provided with food assistance benefits, regardless of the federal budget. Food and water are basic necessities of life – an entitlement.

The current administration and the Republican-majority Congress have been working to revamp the SNAP program. Allegations of widespread fraud by non-citizens, the addicted, and the “lazy”  fuel their plans. Additionally, the increased numbers of program participants and resulting increases in the federal SNAP budget are seen as examples of a ballooning budget and further waste of taxpayers’ money. The proposed solution includes annual budget cuts for SNAP that would lead to its transformation from an entitlement to a grant program by as soon as 2021.

President Trump and our Congress should focus on the socioeconomic reasons that create influxes in clients needing SNAP, not on the program itself. Heavy reliance on SNAP represents an assortment of other problems including, but not limited to, low minimum wage, housing costs, education, and additional socioeconomic factors.

SNAP provides an essential resource to those in need. It is essential that these proposals to revamp it be stopped. Although I am not worried about the way in which Massachusetts would allocate resources, it is the future of food assistance within other parts of the country that is in jeopardy.

SNAP, a product of Lydon B. Johnson’s Great Society and earlier pilot programs initiated by John F. Kennedy, is a safety net depended upon by our friends, families, and fellow Americans.  Policymakers must keep this in mind when altering this program.

Anonymous is a SNAP supporter and studies public administration at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

Please address any comments to Professor Christine Brenner, if you would like the writer to receive them: Christine.brenner@umb.edu

 

March 15, 2017
by McCormack Speaks
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Social Safety Net for Immigrant Victims of Domestic Violence is Fraying

by Anonymous, a McCormack Graduate School student

Homeless womanWhen I heard the story about the woman ICE detained because her allegedly abusive partner reported her, my heart stopped. Any number of women my organization serves could be next. We operate homeless shelters with federal and state funding, which allow undocumented parents with U.S. citizen children to reside in these shelters. Many are fleeing domestic violence situations and are facing complex familial situations and have nowhere else to turn besides the homeless shelter.

With Obama deporting more undocumented immigrants than any other president in history, these families have been dealing with fear and uncertainty for years. However, with the election of our current president, deportation has suddenly become much more discernible to the public. ICE has been much more visible in its deportation proceedings than previously. Many of our direct service staff have been forced to confront the ongoing fears these mothers (and fathers) face day-to-day in a much more tangible way. And while the Obama administration’s guided deportations were focused – particularly on immigrants with criminal records – the deportations so far under our President Trump have been more random and frightening.

Caseworkers are well trained in handling many of the issues of homelessness: employment, education, workforce training, childcare, and housing; even criminal offender record information (CORIs) data requirements are a familiar hurdle for them. While they may not be experts, they understand how to handle these challenges. There are resources available within our organization, from other nonprofits, and from the state government. However, immigration – particularly the increase in undocumented immigrant deportations – is a source of fear, anxiety, and stress.

The policies around immigration have shifted many times since the early 1900s, with residents fearful of new immigrants from undesirable parts of the world. In the 1960s, immigration restrictions loosened with the Hart-Celler Immigration Act (promoted by our own late Senator Ted Kennedy). Now, with the shift back towards a more nationalistic point of view, the status of our undocumented immigrants is even more in flux.

Currently, our staff have begun to prepare and have conversations with mothers about chains of custody in case they are picked up by ICE. My colleagues are saying that these are some of the hardest conversations they’ve ever had in this line of work (and these staffers have difficult conversations with families every day).

Right now, the staff leans on each other for support, resources, and guidance on how to navigate these issues, and it is taking a toll. Their stress builds daily and none of them are fully certain about the right course of action. Historically, they have been able to rely on outside sources, such as Greater Boston Legal Services, but that organization is so overloaded that they are unable to aid new clients in a timely matter.

Even with this hard work, the collaboration between state agencies and nonprofit homeless shelters will likely not be enough to adequately advocate for each family. The case workers struggle with the stark reality every day that they cannot solve these complex issues and need additional resources, particularly legal services, to help them.

Anonymous is an immigrant services caseworker and studies public administration at UMass Boston’s John W. McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies.

Comments can be sent the Professor Christine Brenner, if you want them shared with the blogger: Christine.brenner@umb.edu

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